• Email
  • Print

Gladstone’s Prostitutes

In response to:

The Secret Life from the August 18, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

I have rarely seen a single sentence more heavily laden with untruth than that devoted to W. E. Gladstone’s rescue work at the beginning of Frederick C. Crews’s review of Steven Marcus’s book on Victorian Sexuality (August 18). It ran as follows: “If there was one thing he [Gladstone] enjoyed more than chopping down trees (his passion by day) it was accosting prostitutes by night, enticing them home for tea, money, and condescending Christian lectures, and sending them back into the streets, presumably to sin no more.” Having cooked up this glib misrepresentation, Professor Crews, who later in the day has things to say about “rigor,” observes sagely that “It was an odd way for a great reform minister to tackle a social problem.”

What Gladstone did, in fact, was to devote the sum of two thousand pounds a year, minimum, to a consistent effort to bring relief to two classes of prostitutes. The first consisted of those who had been forced into the profession by want and who could be considered involuntary prostitutes; the second consisted of women who, however they might have entered the profession in the first place, had come to find it disagreeable and who wished to escape from it. Gladstone’s procedure was to patrol the neighborhoods in which prostitutes were most likely to be found on a certain number of nights in every week while he was in London. He made these patrols after the House of Commons had risen, and worked them into his walk home. This was a good time to do the job from his point of view because (a) prostitutes are, in the main, of nocturnal habit, (b) the House of Commons generally rose at a time when business was falling off and the prostitutes on the streets would be largely girls and women who had failed to find clients during the evening, and who would in some cases have no money with which to buy shelter or food. What Gladstone did when he accosted a prostitute was to offer her a place to sleep, protection from any bully or “mackerel” who might be exploiting her, and an opportunity to think over the following handsome proposition: If she wished to do so, on due consideration, she could go to the home or hostel Gladstone helped to maintain, to stay there, eating three square meals a day and receiving any medical attention she might need, until she was in a fit state to take up the job that Gladstone’s assistants and associates undertook to find for her. If the prostitute found any of this attractive, Gladstone would escort her to his home where she would spend the night under Mrs. Gladstone’s care. If she so wished, she would be taken to the hostel on the following day, and she would remain there until the promised job was found for her. When it was, she was given a complete outfit of new clothing and sent off to make a fresh start in life with a reasonable chance of success.

It will be seen that Professor Crews has distorted the nature of Gladstone’s procedures. He has also misrepresented their tone. There is no evidence whatever for his statement that Gladstone inflicted “condescending Christian lectures” on the prostitutes he dealt with. There is, on the contrary, abundant evidence that he made no demands on them either for promises of “reform” or for professions of “repentance,” and that neither he nor his associates preached at them. It may also be said that Gladstone did not harbor any vengeful or punitive feelings for those girls who (a) went straight back to the streets after having had a good supper and breakfast and a night under cover in his home, (b) went back to whoring after having had a good rest and medical assistance in his hostel. There is evidence that he often encountered backsliders who had followed these courses, and that when he did he refrained from rebuking them or scolding them, simply renewing his original offer, and leaving it up to them to take it or leave it and to make what use of it they wished.

It may be added that professor Crews’s neat apposition between tree felling by day and prostitute collecting by night does not work out. As Professor Crews is probably aware, it was a part of the sinister sexual mythology of Victorian England that venereal diseases could be cured by intercourse with a virgin. This led brothel keepers to make a practice of purchasing girls from desperate or unscrupulous parents for resale to diseased clients. Gladstone not infrequently found girls of twelve and thirteen on the street who had outlived their therapeutic utility, and who had been turned adrift by the brothel keepers. After a night in Gladstone’s house had convinced them that no new horror lurked behind his mysterious kindness these girls were sometimes able to tell Mrs. Gladstone that children, sometimes as young as ten and eleven, were being held, either as prisoners, or in happy ignorance of what lay ahead of them, for future sale in the brothels that had cast them out. Gladstone’s response, whenever he heard of such a case, was to go to the brothel in question immediately to secure the release of the child. Many of the hazardous and unpleasant confrontations with brothel keepers that resulted took place in broad daylight.

Professors Crews may, of course, be right when he says that by doing this kindly and imaginative rescue work Gladstone was “really smudging and refurbishing his unconscious images of his parents,” but there seems to be no way of either proving or disproving this assertion. There is, on the other hand, evidence to show (a) that there were a great many women in Gladstone’s London who were in real need of just the sort of help that he was able to offer; (b) that Gladstone was operating within the established Protestant tradition of good works; (c) that he undertook his program of rescue work at a time when few people believed that governmental agencies should assume burdens that were traditionally carried by charitable organizations and individuals. These considerations will suggest to some that Gladstone’s program was sustained over a period of better than forty years, that its initial success led him to finance a second hostel, and that it finally cost him a total of rather more than £94,000, which would correspond to a modern $1,500,000. It had not the slightest tincture of the futility and amateurishness that Professor Crews attributes to it.

All this makes me wonder if Professor Crews’s tartly expressed dislike for the accumulations of facts produced by the historical positivists has not a somewhat obvious explanation. They do very often contain material fatal to the sort of airy fairy simplication that he seems to be willing to put forward as “knowledge” of the extraordinarily complex reality to which the description “William Ewart Gladstone” was attached.

Anthony West

North Stonington


Frederick C Crews replies:

I regret that my sentence only raised one aspect of Gladstone’s zealous project, and that I mistakenly added the phrase about “condescending Christian lectures” to my memory of Sir Philip Magnus’s account in Gladstone. But Mr. West raises a broader question when he implies that good works must be motivated simply by the good results they produced. Evidently it would demean Gladstone in Mr. West’s eyes to admit the likelihood that fantasy-satisfactions were involved in his behavior. Yet Magnus, in full command of Mr. West’s facts, says of Gladstone: “The work on which he was engaged touched a very deep chord in his nature. He had schooled himself early in life to sublimate absolutely the tensions which seethed inside him. His rescue work was an important aspect of that process of sublimation.” Gladstone’s hostel system did not require the conspicuous heroics which he was unable to renounce even after promising to do so. There is a compulsive quality here that cannot be buried under a pile of incidental facts (as Mr. West attempts in his peculiar discussion of Gladstone’s tree-chopping). I grant that my explanation may be wrong, but explanation is not obviated by pedantic detail. And I might add that the interest of Steven Marcus’s book lies precisely in his willingness to consider individual and culturally shared fantasies an important part of the historical record.

  • Email
  • Print